Fame is a bee: Eyeing Emily Dickinson at the Morgan Library and on film

Elizabeth Pochoda

Elizabeth Pochoda Exhibitions

Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson by Otis Allen Bullard, c. 1840. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

No other American poet—maybe no other American writer—excites more curiosity than Emily Dickinson. At a time when poetry barely registers with the reading public Dickinson news is usually big news—a portrait (invariably never authenticated) comes to light, a poetic fragment is found, and there is always one more clinical analysis of her mental state, as if that would bring us any closer to the woman who did not want to be known, who lived in seclusion in her family’s Massachusetts house, wore mostly white, and wrote some eighteen hundred syntactically and rhythmically challenging poems that beckon us seductively, but just as often keep us at something more than arm’s length.

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, c. 1847. Emily Dickinson Collection, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham.

To clear away some of the mythological underbrush surrounding Dickinson, the Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibition I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson, curated by Carolyn Vega, approaches the poet in a calm, matter­-of-­fact manner. Arranged in chronological order from her childhood to the first edition of her work after her death in 1886, the manuscripts, images, and a few objects show a woman who was indeed connected to the world outside, even if she never ventured beyond her door. Scholars have long been aware that Dickinson objected to the regularizing of her off rhymes and eccentric punctuation in the few poems (only ten or so) published during her lifetime, and the exhibition illustrates her firm sense of purpose about their printing . . . no matter that she did not get her way.

Poems by Emily Dickinson (Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1890). Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

To compensate the poet for the sad regularizing of her poetic innovations, the Morgan commissioned artist Jen Bervin to create a quilt­like composition featuring the cross marks, dashes, and other oddities that were eliminated in the early editions of her work. They also summoned poet Lee Ann Brown to do audio recordings of twentyfour poems. Who knows how Dickinson might have read her verse, but it is safe to say that it must have sounded a lot more like talk than the incantatory style of Longfellow, Whitman, or even many modern poets who read in a style that does not begin to approach the foothills of ordinary speech. Brown seems the right choice to talk these poems.

Dickinson’s bedroom in the family house (now the Emily Dickinson Museum) in Amherst. The floral wallpaper is in the exhibition. Photograph by Michael Medeiros.

At the other end of the Dickinsoniana spectrum is Terence Davies’s forthcoming film A Quiet Passion, a bold reimagining of the poet that is anything but quiet. A British filmmaker whose adaptation of The House of Mirth saw deeply enough into Edith Wharton’s book to rival the original, Davies has, with the help of Cynthia Nixon as Emily, created a woman whose verbal candor flays the flesh of family and visitors. There are in Dickinson’s letters enough such gems (especially about religion) to make Nixon’s outbursts plausible. Beyond that, you get the sense that whatever the poet saw and left unsaid Davies has allowed her at last to say.

Dickinson’s seal, English or American, c. 1850. Houghton Library.

The advance word on A Quiet Passion has been ecstatic, especially with respect to its visual grace (which may owe something to Jerome Liebling’s superb photographs in The Dickinsons of Amherst) and sublime music, which stretches from Schubert to Charles Ives. – Elizabeth Pochoda

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion, to be released in April. Courtesy Music Box Films.

I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson • Morgan Library and Museum, New York • January 20 to May 21 • themorgan.org
A Quiet Passion (Music Box Films) • premiers in New York April 15